Atomic Energy Act and Related Legislation

Office of Environment, Health, Safety & Security

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Purpose and Organization

The purpose of the Atomic Energy Act (42 U.S.C. Sect. 2011 - Sect. 2259) (AEA) is to assure the proper management of source, special nuclear, and byproduct material. The AEA and the statutes that amended it delegate the control of nuclear energy primarily to DOE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) , and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). DOE authority extends to:

  • source material — (1) uranium, thorium, or any other material that is determined by the NRC pursuant to the provisions of Section 61 of the AEA to be source material; or (2) ores containing one or more of the foregoing materials, in such concentration as the NRC may by regulation determine from time to time [AEA, Section 11(z)];
  • special nuclear material — (1) plutonium, uranium enriched in the isotope 233 or the isotope 235, and any other material that the NRC, pursuant to the provisions of Section 51 of the AEA, determines to be special nuclear material, but does not include source material; or (2) any material artificially enriched by any of the foregoing, but does not include source material [AEA, Section 11(aa)]; and
  • byproduct material — (1) any radioactive material (except special nuclear material) yielded in or made radioactive by exposure to radiation incident to the process of producing or utilizing special nuclear material, and (2) the tailings or wastes produced by the extraction or concentration of uranium or thorium from any ore processed primarily for its source material content [AEA, Section 11(e)].

With respect to the first definition of byproduct material stated above, DOE issued a final rule [10 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 962] with a much narrower interpretation of the term as it applies to DOE-owned or -produced radioactive material having a hazardous waste component (i.e., mixed wastes). Under this rule the term any radioactive material as used in the first definition of byproduct material refers only to the actual radionuclides suspended or dispersed in the material, not to the nonradioactive hazardous component of the waste. Thus, although DOE retains authority under AEA for the actual radionuclides in byproduct material, any nonradioactive hazardous component of the material will be subject to regulation by EPA or its agreement states under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The rule does not apply to (1) byproduct materials as defined in the second definition (i.e., tailings or wastes from ore processing) or (2) substances not owned or produced by DOE.

Section 161 of AEA provides the authority to establish "by rule, regulation, or order, such standards and instructions to govern the possession and use of special nuclear material, source material, and byproduct materials as the [NRC] may deem necessary or desirable to promote the common defense and security or to protect health or to minimize danger to life or property." This and other sections (e.g., 2, 3, and 41) allow DOE to set radiation protection standards for itself and its contractors. NRC's licensing powers are defined in Sections 101 111. In Sections 91 and 110 the AEA provides exclusions from licensing for defense production facilities.

The Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP), which is administered by DOE's Oak Ridge Operations Office (Technical Services Division under the Assistant Manager for Construction and Engineering), is derived from the AEA.

Related Legislation

The Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 redirected federal energy efforts. Congress determined that the public interest would best be served by separating the licensing and related functions of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) from energy development and related functions. To achieve this Congress replaced the AEC with the NRC and a second agency called the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA, which later became DOE under the Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977). The Energy Reorganization Act authorized NRC to license the following specific classes of DOE facilities:

Demonstration liquid metal fast breeder reactors when operated as part of the power generation facilities of an electric utility system or when operated in any other manner to demonstrate the suitability of such a reactor for commercial application.


Other demonstration nuclear reactors except those in existence on the effective date of the Act when operated as part of the power generation facilities of an electric utility system or when operated in any other manner to demonstrate the suitability of such a reactor for commercial application.


Facilities used primarily for the receipt and storage of high-level radioactive wastes resulting from activities licensed under the act.


Retrievable surface storage facilities and other facilities authorized for long-term storage of high-level radioactive waste generated by the Administration [ERDA], which are not used for, or part of, research and development activities.

The Energy Reorganization Act also established the goal of efficient energy utilization while enhancing environmental protection and created the position of Assistant Administrator for Environment and Safety.

The Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977 clarified Congressional intent related to DOE's environmental functions. It states:

The Department of Energy, by consolidating environmental considerations and procedures now within the separate purview of the Federal Energy Administration (FEA), Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), Federal Power Commission (FPC), and part of the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI), should provide an effective vehicle for identifying potential environmental, health, safety, socioeconomic, institutional, and control technology issues associated with technology development. It will provide a single, coordinated mechanism for determining necessity and timing of environmental impact assessments and environmental impact statements in order to respond to the needs of specific technologies or resources. It will ensure a complete and fully integrated program with respect to environmental, health and safety impact research and engineering applications.

This authorized the establishment of eight Assistant Secretaries, including one with environmental responsibilities and functions. The duties of the latter included advising the Secretary on how well DOE's activities conform to environmental protection laws and principles. Section 102, the Congressional declaration of purpose, listed some of DOE's fundamental purposes as assuring incorporation of national environmental protection goals in the formulation and implementation of energy programs; advancing the goals of restoring, protecting, and enhancing environmental quality; and assuring public health and safety.

The Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978 created a program of assessment and remedial action at active and inactive mill operations to control and stabilize the tailings in a safe and environmentally sound manner. A further purpose was to minimize or eliminate possible health hazards to the public from radiation.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 provided for the development of repositories for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel. It also established a program of research, development, and demonstration on the disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.

State Designations

Before 1954 nuclear energy activities were largely confined to the federal government. In that year the passage of the AEA made it possible for private commercial firms to enter the field. Because of the hazards, Congress determined that these activities should be regulated by licensing to protect the health and safety of radiation workers and the public. The NRC is now charged by Congress with this responsibility.

Protection of public health and safety has traditionally been a state responsibility, but the 1954 act did not carve out any specific role for the states. In 1959 Section 274 was added to the AEA to spell out a state role and to provide a statutory basis under which the federal government could relinquish portions of its regulatory authority to the states. These amendments made it possible for the states to license and regulate byproducts, source materials, and small quantities of special nuclear materials.

The mechanism for the transfer of NRC's authority to a state is an agreement between the governor of the state and the NRC. Before actually signing the document, NRC, by statute, must make a finding that the state's radiation control program is compatible with the NRC's and that it is adequate to protect public health and safety. The state must also establish its authority to enter into an agreement (usually by "enabling legislation"). Twenty-nine states have entered into such agreements with the NRC. Routine reviews of their programs by the NRC assure that they effectively protect public health and safety.

The final regulations implementing the AEA statute and related legislation are found in Title 10 of the CFR.

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